Business / Corporate

Japanese government played hidden role in breakdown of Fiat-Renault deal

by Ania Nussbaum, Kae Inoue and Geraldine Amiel

Bloomberg

The Japanese government played a role in the breakdown of merger talks between Renault SA and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV earlier this month, weighing in with concerns that the combination could harm Nissan Motor Co., people familiar with the matter said.

Tokyo signaled its misgivings over the deal to the French government, said the people, asking not to be identified speaking about the negotiations. France — Renault’s most powerful shareholder — then sought a pause in the talks for more time to win Nissan’s support, provoking Fiat to withdraw its offer.

Details on Japan’s role, only emerging now, highlight the obstacles to a quick resumption in merger negotiations between Renault and its Italo-American rival. They also show that France and Japan can find common ground to protect their carmakers and the two-decade Renault-Nissan alliance.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the French Finance Ministry. Representatives for Renault and Nissan also declined to comment.

Renault and the French state are now focusing on repairing the relationship with Nissan, under strain since the November arrest of Carlos Ghosn, who oversaw both companies and their partnership. Tensions escalated further when Renault’s new chairman, Jean-Dominique Senard, pressed Nissan for a merger it didn’t want, then pursued the Fiat deal without telling the Yokohama-based firm.

Relations touched a new low earlier this month when Senard threatened to block Nissan’s new governance plan at its annual shareholders meeting. An accord Thursday put an end to the spat over boardroom powers, easing tensions for now.

Heading into the pivotal June 5 Renault board meeting, Senard and Fiat Chairman John Elkann were pushing for quick approval of the French-Italian tie-up.

Nissan had been cool to the Fiat-Renault deal since it first learned of the talks, people familiar with the matter said. But rather than come out against it openly, the company’s representatives on Renault’s board chose to signal their opposition with an abstention, the people said. Dialogue with Japanese officials helped their French counterparts understand Nissan’s position, prompting France to put the brakes on the deal.

While CEO Hiroto Saikawa had pledged to protect Nissan’s interests, the company didn’t ask METI to intervene with the French government, according to a person familiar with the matter. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has said Nissan’s plan to abstain on the Renault-Fiat vote drove his decision to seek a delay.

The last-minute move by Le Maire to pause the Renault-Fiat talks won him praise from some Nissan insiders. The Fiat proposal was seen by some at Nissan as a way for it to get control of the company and its key technologies and to benefit from its presence in the U.S. and China — all on the cheap. Renault owns 43 percent of Nissan and their operations are so intertwined that the deal would have had deep implications for the Japanese partner, the insiders said.